Today is the fourth of February, 2016 and I am writing this in Ghent, Belgium, about twenty kilometers from Lokeren where my partner Hilde De Roover was born. Last night, when I arrived after the usual ordeal of airplanes and trains, I walked to the Sphinx Theater and watched “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with subtitles in Dutch and French. I am now reflecting upon both the new film and the original “Star Wars” because, last night in my state of jetlag, they appeared to me as one and the same movie, a disorientation that illustrates the complicated relationship between films and memory.
I had just turned fourteen in 1977 when the first “Star Wars” film was released and I was about to participate in an unprecedented, pop-cultural hero’s journey. My Tatooine was Amery, a small dairy farming town in western Wisconsin. This village of two thousand people had one movie theater located centrally on the main street. My father loved movies and so my brothers and I made frequent trips with him to the Amery Theater.
During the early to mid-1970’s I had been preoccupied with Toho Studio monster films, Kaiju, which my friends and I watched on television: “Rodan,” “War of the Gargantuas,” “Mothra” and, most frequently, Godzilla. In early April of 1972, I read in the local newspaper that “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” would be playing on my birthday at the Amery Theater. I asked my father a week in advance if he would drive my friends and me to see Godzilla. He agreed and on the afternoon of Saturday, April 29, 1972 a half-dozen boys crowded into our wood-paneled station wagon and drove downtown to watch the movie.
The pop-psychedelic playfulness of the late 1960’s that had transformed the style of genre films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “The Thomas Crown Affair” had also infected the Godzilla franchise by 1972. When I saw the film again recently I smiled, imagining my father in the Amery Theater on his son’s ninth birthday trying to make sense of Godzilla subjected to the visual mannerisms of “Head.” My father had been born into the Great Depression in North Dakota, grew up poor and practical, served in the army, worked his way through college and medical school in Madison, Wisconsin and now lived as a small-town doctor in Amery; his experience surely had not prepared him for psychedelic Kaiju.
Occasionally, my brothers and I would take movie-going trips with our father to the Maplewood Mall Multiplex on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota, an hour’s drive from Amery. Among the films I recall seeing at the mall were: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Doc Savage: Man of Bronze,” the series of “Benji” movies, “Herbie Rides Again,” “Bugsy Malone” and Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films. During the late spring of 1977 a neighbor boy described a movie called “Stars Wars” that he’d seen on a similar visit to Minneapolis with his parents. It was amazing and he wanted to see it again as soon as possible. He waved a stick around and made a buzzing sound to demonstrate the idea of a light sabre to us. In addition to this enthusiastic word of mouth, ads appeared constantly on television and the soundtrack played on the radio in Moog synthesizer and disco variations. In retrospect, one imagines “Star Wars” during the summer of 1977 as the equivalent of The Beatles in 1964; it overwhelmed the collective pop sensibility and was inescapable.
My brothers and I convinced my dad without much difficulty to drive us to the Maplewood Mall to see “Star Wars.” Upon arriving at the theater, we were surprised to learn that the next screening was sold out. I don’t think we were even aware that a movie could sell out. We bought tickets for the following show and went into the shopping mall to pass time. When we later filed slowly into the theater with the crowd, every seat ultimately occupied, the atmosphere was charged with a contagious eagerness that I’d never felt in a cinema before. “Star Wars” wasn’t just another movie; it was a momentous social event.
The pre-movie, abstract oil disc projection eventually faded away and the crowd murmured in anticipation. After the United Artist’s theater chain trailer explained where we must dispose of our trash and where to exit in the event of a fire, the opening title appeared, accompanied by the declamatory John William’s theme. The audience, as if constraints had been suddenly removed, applauded and cheered wildly. I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck as the now-famous text scroll in perspective space began. People whispered to each other around us and I realized that many in the audience had seen the film before.
The first passage of an Imperial Star Destroyer over a background planet stunned me. Part of “Star Wars” initial appeal lay in establishing a new standard of detail in practical special effects; the suspension of disbelief was immediate and absolute. We, the audience, were then swept through Luke Skywalker’s journey to the moment of catharsis that almost anyone of my generation remembers vividly: the destruction of the Death Star. “Stay on Target!” I grabbed my younger brother’s arm. “Stay on Target!!” He was shaking uncontrollably with anxiety. “Use the Force Luke . . . let go.” The crowd stood together, arms in the air, bound in an involuntary expression of tension and joy. I glanced up at my dad and he was smiling broadly. He turned to me and slapped my hand in celebration. We did it. We had all done it together. It was the first ‘rock concert’ moment that I experienced at the movies.
During the next six months, I saw “Star Wars” seven more times.
Although George Lucas has acknowledged the 1930’s Buck Rogers serial as an initial model for his space epic, he studied this influence through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” abstracting from the pulp narrative the essential hero’s journey pattern. Due to the immense financial and cultural impact of “Star Wars,” this functional monomyth has provided subsequent, mega-budget studio films (“The Force Awakens” included) with a dependable means of drawing emotional identification from an audience.
At the story’s beginning, the protagonist finds himself in inauspicious circumstances with little awareness of his potential. Generally through the intervention of a mentor figure, the chosen unwittingly embarks upon the path to realize his potential and to serve his kind, to become captain, soldier, destroyer of the Death Star, messiah of his race. I use only the masculine pronoun in this description because, until recently, the chosen was almost always male: Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, Neo in his apartment in “The Matrix,” handicapped Jake Sully in “Avatar” or Frodo in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In the mainstream entertainment of my early adult life, middle-aged men authored this cinematic hero’s journey specifically for the aspirations of young men (and perhaps for their own consolation as well).
In the case of “Avatar,“ James Cameron devised a self-conscious metaphor to make explicit our relationship to the film’s protagonist: as Jake is to his alien avatar, so we are to Jake. Handicapped by the banality of life, we project our fondest, most elevated ideas of ourselves into these vessels, designed to embody our desire, and they amplify and feed our passion back to us, enabling us to participate vicariously in greatness and nobility, youth and vitality. Cameron is keenly aware of movies as a tool of emotional manipulation (and thus also as an engine for generating box office revenue). The exchange that we enact with movies as wish-fulfillment is simple: we pay our ticket price to experience a version of life as we most grandly hope it to be. We may be living anonymously, our potential unrecognized in forlorn places like Amery, Wisconsin, but we possess special capacities and the normal rules will not ultimately apply to us.
Now, forty years after my first experience of “Star Wars,” I’m in Ghent for a month, jet-lagged and trying to stay awake at the Sphinx Theater on the Korenmarkt watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In my personal journey, I’ve escaped my own rural Tatooine and landed on the exotic planet of Belgium. When R2D2 first appeared in the film, a boy of about eight turned to his father and exclaimed, “R2! Hij is terug!” (He’s back!) I was startled that a boy who could potentially be my grandson was this thoroughly versed in the same “Star Wars” mythology that had captivated me in 1977. Despite the notably diverse casting as regards race and gender, which encourages a broader contemporary audience to project themselves into the onscreen wish-fulfillment fantasy, I began to see “The Force Awakens” as a repertory staging of the original “Star Wars.” The same story and character mechanisms that had manipulated me as a fourteen-year-old now began to work their calculated magic. I fondly recalled the excitement of that first viewing at the Maplewood Mall. I was that naively enthusiastic teenager projecting myself into my onscreen surrogate Luke Skywalker again, until . . . Mark Hamill appeared at the end of the film.
There are moments in films, many of them incidental or accidental, in which the actuality of the props, actors, locations or suggestions of off-camera space disrupt the suspension of disbelief to reveal something unsettlingly temporary and insecure. For me, this unexpected interjection into the illusion-making can usually be defined as ‘a sudden awareness of passing time.’ I remember, for instance, noticing the simple appearance of a fly on the wall behind a character’s head in Pudovkin’s “Mother.” The artifice created by the filmmakers vanished and the deeper, documentary reality of a group of people in 1926 pretending to be other people in front of a camera entered the foreground of my attention. I forgot about the story and recognized an arbitrary moment in the cast’s life that had been preserved, removed from the flow of time and then repeated decades later as a representation on a screen in a movie theater.
In his essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Andre Bazin suggests that photography “embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” Chris Marker borrows this notion of photographic taxidermy in the visual metaphor of the natural history museum in “La Jetee;” a space filled with “ageless animals.” The scene produces a contradictory awareness of both preservation and passing that one can bring to bear upon the viewing of any movie. Lassie romps eternally through the Lassie films, long after all of the dogs that played Lassie onscreen have died; the Lassie that we watch onscreen is a form of taxidermy, a representation of one dog’s life frozen in that moment. At the documentary level of photographic capture, a movie inherently conveys an uneasy mingling of life and death, of presence and loss, that confronts the viewer potentially with the instability of their own location in time.
Mid-twentieth century film theorists such as Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, preoccupied with the photograph’s epistemological status, considered the cinema camera as a tool for reproducing a fundamental reality that transcended the narrative intentions of the films in which the cinematography appeared. In reaction to their writing, schools of naturalistic filmmaking developed in which the spontaneous inclusion of the real was perceived as a value and filmmakers actively cultivated and provoked these accidents (Cinema Verite, Direct Cinema, American naturalism during the 1970’s, Dogma). Shooting on location rather than in controlled studios increased the odds of unpremeditated reality intervening. Actors adopted specific tactics to diminish theatricality and encourage emotional authenticity. John Cassavetes, to name a notable example, was a proponent of this method, both as an actor and as a director. He sought to create an environment in which actors were forced to abandon their professional mannerisms and give him the honesty of their true selves. (Watch Peter Falk in “Columbo” and in the contemporaneous “Husbands” for an illustration of this contrast in stylistic/philosophical approaches.)
I’m certain that the makers of “The Force Awakens” were not evoking this tradition of cinematic naturalism when Mark Hamill turned to the camera at the film’s end. But the bubble of my nostalgic reverie burst, nonetheless, due to uniquely subjective circumstances: jetlag amplifying my memories of 1977. Because I was experiencing the “Star Wars” of 2016 as a repertory performance of the original, Rey is essentially playing Luke Skywalker and it was the visual confrontation of Lukes at the conclusion that ambushed me with the unintentional ‘fly on the wall’ moment. Rey (the actress Daisy Ridley) is the vital, young, as yet untested Luke Skywalker with all of her adventures before her, essentially Mark Hamill in 1977 in the layer of documentary actuality beneath the story. She seeks the original Luke Skywalker and finds him in what appears to be an Irish coastal landscape playing a distant planet. Naturally, within the formal terms of the “Star Wars” mythology, Luke has become Obi Wan Kenobi; he will now serve as mentor to another young Jedi acolyte. He turns to reveal his face to the camera, the make-believe evaporates for me and he is shockingly . . . Mark Hamill the man, old, degraded, physically diminished, fallen and frail with the better part of his life behind him. Siegfried Kracauer describes just such an unintentional intervention in his book “Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality”:
In his Hamlet Laurence Olivier has the cast move about in a studio-built, conspicuously stagy Elsinore, whose labyrinthine architecture seems calculated to reflect Hamlet's unfathomable being. Shut off from our real-life environment, this bizarre structure would spread over the whole of the film were it not for a small, otherwise insignificant scene in which the real ocean outside that dream orbit is shown. But no sooner does the photographed ocean appear than the spectator experiences something like a shock. He cannot help recognizing that this little scene is an outright intrusion; that it abruptly introduces an element incompatible with the rest of the imagery. How he then reacts to it depends upon his sensibilities.
Sitting in the Sphinx Cinema on Feb. 4, 2016, my particular sensibilities have exposed a spontaneous truth to me, subsidiary to and yet more profound than the story the film is telling. Mark Hamill is suddenly Dennis Hopper on the pool table taking photos of himself in Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” or John Cassavetes pouring himself a drink in “Love Streams.” The uncomfortable penetration of personal biography into the fictional space has subverted my participation in the grand narrative; Mark Hamill’s aged appearance and my personal relationship with “Star Wars” have hijacked the intentions of the filmmakers. To see Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, older and wrinkled, thicker and slightly hunched with age earlier in “The Force Awakens” introduces the first twinge of confusion that fully materializes in Mark Hamill’s appearance at the end. My memories enter into eccentric dialogue with the pedestrian reality of the film’s production. For me, who had dedicated myself whole-heartedly to “Star Wars” at age fourteen and had longed to be Luke Skywalker, witnessing this pathetically human juxtaposition of the two Luke Skywalkers forty years apart in age emphasizes my mortality. I may have successfully made the journey to the planet Belgium, but The Force is weakened within me. The physical strip of film that is my life uncoils into the starry background. I am aging and will die, a truth deeper and more fundamental than the hero’s journey. Time inevitably wins the battle.